Words + Photography by Luke Alland, using Fujifilm's XT-2.
Jordan, home to one of the seven Wonders of The World, and a shit tonne of sand. Whether it be a beach or a desert, you can’t move for the stuff. I based myself in Aqaba for a week of discovery with a bus ride to Petra, and discovered that it’s far more than just the Treasury and a near-death experience in Wadi rum involving a cigarette, some twigs and four petrol canisters.
The whole trip came about by going to a price comparison website and seeing where the rogue-est destination would be on my budget. Lo and behold, there was a little dot somewhere near the Red Sea. A quick Google and a few card details later, I booked my flight to Aqaba. It was with easyJet admittedly, but it did feel like a bit of an adventure landing in a very, very different landscape. No rolling green hills or sprawling cities as the plane comes into land, just the red expanse of the desert stretching out as far as the eye can see.
Some October sun and ticking a World Wonder off were top of my list. Safe to say I got both. Aqaba is a strange little coast town. It’s still rough enough around the edges to retain its authenticity, but with the constant influx of Europeans from the cruises that pop into the Gulf of Aqaba, you can see that the locals have become accustomed to certain, well, customers. Bars and restaurants have alcohol on the menu, only not to actually have it on the premises. They get a waiter to don a hoodie and pop to the off-licence and pick up 1 dinar (1 dinar is essentially £1, nice and easy conversation rate) beers only to resell them for 5. If you don’t drink, you’ll have a very cheap dinner stuffing your face with endless hummus.
What they lack in drinking culture, they certainly make up for in smoking culture. You can’t move for cigarette smoke, it’s almost as if there’s a daily competition to see how many they can get through. Shisha bars litter most streets and the constant bubbling of anything from apple to watermelon is a vital part of the local culture. There’s not many sights in the city proper, and its main use for beaches as a base is probably its best asset. Although the beach is strewn with cigarette butts, I left all my stuff alone whilst I took a dip in the sea and no one took an interest in it.
Whenever I comment on countries or cities, I of course recognise I am talking from the perspective of a straight white man, and my experience of anywhere can be radically different to others. Whilst I was having lunch one afternoon, I got chatting to the owner as two young lads were being marched over to the local police box (essentially like a Guard's Post randomly dotted about the city) I asked what they did, or to hazard a guess as to what might be the problem, the response I got was purely, "They must be gay". After my trip, I did some research into the laws of the country to see if homosexuality was actually criminalised, and found something extremely interesting.
Same-sex sexual activity used to be illegal in Jordan under the British Mandate Criminal Code Ordinance. This was until 1951, when Jordan drafted its own laws which did not criminalise homosexuality and it still remains legal in Jordan. This is however caveated with the fact that LGBTQIA+ people displaying public affection are at risk of being prosecuted for "disrupting public morality." As with many places on earth, I hope that any frowning upon of homosexuality diminishes, and wider acceptance increases, although it might take a few more years until it is fully societally accepted.
My first venture outside of Aqaba came with a trip to Wadi Rum. Myself and two Russians were picked up from the hotel in quite a plush Mercedes and driven about 45 minutes away to a random house on the edge of the Wadi. From there, we all (driver included) decanted into a ramshackle 4x4 driven by Muhammed, who we later found out was a friend of the owner of my hotel. Unbeknownst to me at the time, we weren't going through the proper route in and out of the Wadi as Muhammed put pedal to metal, racing through a huge gap in the fence about five minutes away from our impromptu rendezvous.
We absolutely blew through the desert, and ticked off a number of the 'tourist spots', how he knew were to go still blows my mind, and with the sheer expanse of it, it always astounds me how the Bedouin not only survived, but thrived here. Wadi Rum has been the location of a number of films, including of course, Lawrence of Arabia, as well as providing the backdrop for The Martian, and considering three days before I'd been catching a train from Anerley in South London, this felt like a fucking solar system away from the normal.
With a few more hours of driving under our belts, and a number of run-ins with his sons also running tours (in much newer and more adept 4x4's I must add), we eventually found a little spot to light a fire and watch the sun set. Muhammed went about collecting firewood whilst I had a conversation via our previous driver, translating to and from Russian with the odd smattering of Arabic whenever Muhammed came near. With the sound of just the wind and the fire, we watched the sun set over Wadi Rum and marvelled at how beautiful earth can actually be. I think it maybe the most peaceful I've ever been in nature. About ten minutes later, my heart rate went through the roof.
As we climbed in the back of the 4x4 again, Muhammed loaded up some firewood to take home so that we could all have dinner before driving back to Aqaba. I jumped in the back and right on cue, we both sparked up a cigarette. As we were driving through the pitch black of the desert (without lights, as technically we weren't supposed to be there) without warning we nose-dived down a ditch in the sand, my hand crashed against the window, sending half the cigarette into the open boot which contained—to my horror—not only the firewood, but also three fully-loaded plastic petrol containers. For some reason I didn't shout forward for us to stop, but essentially accepted that I was about the suffer some damage that even travel insurance couldn't fix. Thankfully (and probably quite obviously) I lived to tell the tale, but Christ alive I wouldn't be in a rush to do it again.
The next day and with a newfound appreciation of life, I got up early to catch the bus for the hour-and-a-half drive to Petra. If the new love for life I'd been given from the experiences I'd had the day before was strong, the bus driver certainly added to it when we finally arrived after careering through the winding mountain roads. I hadn't really Googled or done any research on Petra, in my mind it was just the Treasury and maybe a bit of desert. But after getting dropped off in the car park, going through the ticket office and through the gates, I hadn't realised it was a ten-minute walk from the entrance.
Never before in my life have I been offered so many different forms of transport. They had it all: donkey, camel, horse, donkey-drawn cart, horse-drawn cart, it was getting to the point I thought I'd have to reject a piggy back from the hundreds of Bedouin loitering on the path down. Eventually I arrived at the Treasury and it was a pure unadulterated Instagram vs Reality moment. There were hundreds of tourists all looking up, and don't get me wrong, it was stunning. Deserving of its seven Wonders of The World status, however, I'd just made the discovery after unfolding one of those tourist maps you reject at the ticket booth, but pick up on the way out, that Petra was in fact a city. Yes, how uncultured of me.
I made it my mission for the day to get around and climb up anything and everything I could. At one point, a Bedouin woman shouted down to me to scale a ten-meter rock face 'like a goat!', to which of course I duly obliged. Only on reaching the top did I realise she wanted to sell me some trinkets. From there however I wandered over to a small camp blasting out 'Jammin'' by Bob Marley, where in exchange for a few cigarettes, I got a cup of tea, as well as being offered some strange white alcoholic drink. I took the former; didn't trust the latter.
It was a fucking adventure. The whole day was bliss, and whilst the Treasury is beautiful, the real fun is had in exploring this forgotten city. You can go almost anywhere, unsupervised and unimpeded. It's one of those moments when you have to remind yourself that YOU'RE the responsible adult for yourself and if given the chance again, I'd go back in a heartbeat. The thing I won't want to do again is that ten-minute walk... oh it's all fine and dandy when you arrive with fresh legs and excitement. After a day in the glaring sun, you remember that walk was downhill on the way here, but not quite the same on the way back.
A perilous bus ride back to Aqaba ensued and it meant I could lollop about the beach in Aqaba to sign off a successful trip for the next few days, smoking shisha and nattering with the locals. Aqaba may not be the prettiest of places but it enables you to reach the most of the spellbinding parts of Jordan with ease in a way Amman (the capital) might not. Granted you won't get to see the Dead Sea, but you will get to see the sun set over Egypt and the Gulf of Aqaba, and that is something that will stick with me forever. In short, go. It's bloody brilliant.
In October though, fewer tourists.